Ethan Bronner
The New York Times (Analysis)
September 5, 2010 - 12:00am

JERUSALEM — Palestinian  and Israeli leaders expressed satisfaction and hope on Sunday in their first public utterances after the opening round of Middle East peace talks in Washington last week.

“The structure that has been agreed to is a good one,” the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said in a telephone interview. Mr. Erekat, who has accused the Israelis of bad faith in the past, said the two sides had agreed to build a framework within a year for a comprehensive deal. “We have started a process and have every hope that it will succeed. This is the time for decisions.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said that his country was ready for a historic compromise with the Palestinians and that he thought the Arab world would follow.

In his regular televised appearance before his weekly cabinet meeting, Mr. Netanyahu said the fact that King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt went to Washington for the start of the negotiations “reflects a sense of readiness that exists in the Arab world, that this is the time to try and complete a peace settlement between us and the Palestinians and to expand it into a broader circle of peace.”

Aides to Mr. Netanyahu said that his 90-minute meeting on Thursday with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, had gone well and had set the tone for their next meeting on Sept. 14 in Egypt.

Although previous Middle East peace efforts have ended in failure, the current one has a few innovative components — American officials are involved from the very start and plan to stay involved; all difficult issues are to be negotiated in a package deal, so both sides are forced to compromise and acknowledge the other’s compromises; and the sides have agreed to a one-year deadline.

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas are planning to meet every two weeks. They are also planning to keep the substance of their conversations closely held in an effort to prevent leaks from becoming sources of embarrassment or pressure.

Still, officials on both sides agreed that the process would soon face a difficult test: Israel’s moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank ends Sept. 26, and the government does not seem inclined to extend it. The Palestinians have repeatedly said that if construction starts again, the talks will end.

But Mr. Netanyahu spoke Sunday about the need to “embrace original thinking, to think outside the box” in these talks, and it was clear that efforts were under way to find a formula to keep the process going after the deadline. Mr. Erekat, when asked about this, said, “the key is in their hands.”

He repeated something he has said often: “The Israelis have to choose between settlements and peace. They can’t have both.” But Mr. Erekat did not repeat another familiar expression: that if construction begins again in West Bank Jewish settlements on Sept. 26, the peace process halts. Instead, he said this was not an issue he wished to discuss now.

One possible interpretation of his reticence is that negotiations may be under way to permit the talks to continue after the moratorium ends. Such a deal might include sweeteners for the Palestinian leadership — release of Palestinian prisoners, for example, or changes on the ground in the West Bank.

Aides to Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday, as they have in the past, that if the Palestinians walked away from negotiations over the settlement construction deadline, it would be evidence that they had not been serious about reaching an agreement and were looking for an excuse.

Mr. Netanyahu indicated that he would not tell most of his cabinet ministers about the substance of his negotiations until a framework was reached with Mr. Abbas. That would presumably avoid leaks and crises and increase the chances that any accord would be viewed in its entirety by all sides.

In Washington last week, Israeli reporters asked Mr. Netanyahu for details of his talks with Mr. Abbas. He declined, saying: “You want headlines. I want an agreement.”


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017